POLICE chiefs today denied they covered up the extent of child sex grooming in Blackpool.
Bosses say they have not “deliberately hidden” facts about exploitation in the resort while children’s services bosses claim Blackpool youngsters “are now safer than they’ve ever been.”
Lancashire Police came under fire in a report by The Times which accused the force of ‘hiding a sex grooming scandal’ in Blackpool and ‘inhibiting’ further research by political correctness.
The article claimed an “unpublished police report” showed more than 60 Blackpool children aged 13 to 15 had been groomed by a group of men connected to several town centre takeaway premises.
But police say the figures were drawn from an awards submission for the Awaken project – which was set up to tackle sexual exploitation of vulnerable children – and was submitted to the Home Office in 2007 and was freely available to the public on-line.
A spokesman for Lancashire Police said: “We would like to make it clear we do not accept we have deliberately hidden the facts from the public about this issue.”
Child grooming was thrust into the spotlight following the disappearance of 14-year-old schoolgirl Charlene Downes in 2003.
Resort takeaway bosses Iyad Albattikhi and Mohammed Reveshi were charged with killing and disposing of her body, but were later acquitted of all charges.
The investigation, did, however, uncover a squalid problem of sexual exploitation – an issue which The Times article also connects to another missing Blackpool girl, Paige Chivers.
Paige was just 15 when she disappeared in 2007. The report claims the teenager was also a “victim of sexual exploitation” but police say her disappearance remains a missing person inquiry and they are “keeping an open mind”.
The figures listed in the Awaken report are evidence of a problem highlighted many times by The Gazette over the past decade.
In 2005 – one year after Awaken was launched – we revealed how 240 Blackpool children had been identified as “at risk of exploitation” and that 80 had been “saved” from the clutches of paedophiles
We highlighted for the first time how police had focused on “takeaways and exploitation hotspots”, while also revealing how children had been rescued from brothels.
New figures, obtained by The Gazette today, show between September 2010 and February 2011, Awaken received 135 reports of children who could be at risk and how 54 suspects had been identified.
Of these 92 per cent were white, two per cent were Pakastani, two per cent were Caribbean and four per cent were Turkish.
Thirty-one people were arrested and 14 were subsequently charged with offences relating to child exploitation. Thirteen were given abduction notices which is the equivalent of a police warning.
Blackpool Council says child protection has improved in the resort.
David Lund, executive director of children, adult and family services, said: “We’ve always been completely open and honest about the fact we’d identified a problem. The initial research, referred to in The Times, was carried out in 2003.
“Due to the success of Awaken, children in Blackpool are now safer than they’ve ever been. The project has received national acclaim. ”
Assistant Chief Con Andy Rhodes said: “We have worked closely with other agencies over the past six years to tackle the issue of child sexual exploitation.
“We recognised there was an issue in relation to on-street grooming of young people by adults who have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect or status.
“We are able to tackle this problem, target offenders and help those children who have become, or are at risk of becoming, victims because we put the resources into safeguarding those who are vulnerable and bringing to justice those who are responsible.”
Former Lancashire Det Supt Mick Gradwell, said police should, however, have a “more open debate”.
He said: “There is a lot of work going on with these operations (such as Awaken) but there is a reluctance to talk openly about the full facts.”